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Teacher campaign takes platform to the mayor

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

More than 40 people — parents, grandparents, students, teachers, and activists — made a personal plea to Mayor Nutter Thursday to take a proactive role in the ongoing contract negotiations between the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Members of the Effective Teaching Campaign presented Nutter with hundreds of postcards signed by people who back their platform, which calls for changes in how teachers are evaluated and assigned to schools.

The campaign wants all teachers to be hired at the school level by elected leadership teams that include the principal, teachers, parents, and, in high schools, students. It also wants teachers to have real decision-making power as an incentive to avoid the churn and turnover that typically occurs at some of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Now, many positions are filled by seniority, and site selection in many schools is done by the principal alone, not a leadership team.

The campaign also seeks a better teacher evaluation system, something that has become a major pillar of President Obama’s education agenda. Research for Action has just released a report comparing Philadelphia’s evaluation procedures with others, including those in some local charter schools. It notes, among other things, that the city never got around to using an updated evaluation form put out by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. It presented several models, including some from local charter schools, that better train principals and other evaluators, give teachers real feedback, and do more thorough observations of teachers when they are eligible for tenure.

A student, teacher, and parent spoke for the campaign.

"This contract is a real opportunity to improve the quality of education in our city," said William Browning, parent of students at Strawberry Mansion High.

Zakia Royster, a senior at Sayre High School, said her teachers often don’t have the materials they need to succeed and get discouraged, even if they are well meaning. And high school teacher Anissa Weinraub said that teachers need to feel that they have a stake in their schools. "I hope you will support a contract that empowers us rather than scapegoats us," she said.

Nutter, about to run off to the groundbreaking for the Sugarhouse Casino, was noncommittal. In the hallway outside his office, he thanked everyone for coming and reiterated his determination to increase the graduation rate among city public school students.

Later, he said that he is in constant touch with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and has made his views known on the big issues, but doesn’t plan to go public with any of his priorities while the talks are still going on. While he "obviously" cares about how the School District impacts the children of the city, he said he wasn’t ready to endorse any of the campaign’s positions.

"She’s the superintendent, she’s the CEO," he said of Ackerman. Contract negotiations, he said, are always complicated, and he is busy with municipal contract talks.

Brian Armstead, a leader of the campaign, said he hoped that Nutter would use his bully pulpit to spur movement on the more contentious issues around evaluation and the equitable distribution of teachers. "We think it’s his place to stand in," Armstead said. "He is the eyes and the ears and the voice of the people. He can have influence."

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